Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson yesterday staked out one of the toughest plans on the campaign trail to curb illegal immigration, trying to reignite the issue among the GOP faithful who rose up in revolt against a more moderate approach in Congress earlier this year.
Highlighting what he believes are key vulnerabilities for his main rivals, Thompson called for stripping federal funds from cities and states that do not report illegal immigrants and criticized Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney for allowing so-called sanctuary cities in New York and Massachusetts.
The first principle of Thompson's plan is "No Amnesty," a clear shot at another rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, who joined President Bush in trying unsuccessfully to push through a sweeping immigration overhaul bill that would have created a guest worker program and provided a path to possible citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Thompson's plan provoked a new round of sparring among the contenders, underscoring that polls indicate that none of them has been able to emerge in the minds of Republican voters as the candidate best able to fix the broken immigration system.
Party officials in key primary states said yesterday that the candidate who can win voters' trust on immigration could make significant gains. Polls indicate that Republicans care more than Democrats about the issue and support a harder line against illegal immigrants.
"It's a very significant issue in America that few politicians are willing to tackle head-on, and when they do, they tackle it the wrong way," said Karen Hanretty, a Thompson spokeswoman. She said Thompson will trumpet his plan today in South Carolina, which holds the first Southern primary, on Jan. 19, and will address it Saturday in Iowa, which holds the first caucus, on Jan. 3.
The former Tennessee senator's plan also calls for stronger laws forcing employers to verify that workers are not illegal immigrants, for a more rigorous system to track who is coming in and out of the country, and for increased prosecution of smugglers who bring illegal immigrants across the Mexican border.
Thompson, Giuliani, and Romney all want to finish a fence across the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants, and oppose any bill that would lead to amnesty for illegal immigrants who are already in the United States.
McCain has acknowledged that his more moderate views have hurt him among conservative Republicans. Campaigning in New Hampshire yesterday, the Arizona senator said Americans may not be ready to embrace the legislation he sponsored with US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.
"The key is that we have no trust or confidence in Washington because of our failures in Katrina, Iraq, corruption, and we have to secure the borders first," McCain said. "I just went through this debate. We have to secure the borders first. Then I think everyone would be willing as Americans to go for a temporary worker program."
McCain and Giuliani criticized Thompson, saying he did not show leadership on illegal immigration during the eight years he was in the US Senate, ending in 2003.
"Where was Fred Thompson when he had the chance to tackle illegal immigration and fix a broken system?" asked Katie Levinson, a Giuliani spokeswoman.
Romney's campaign said Thompson's plan offers nothing new.
"Fred is a couple of months behind on this issue," said spokesman Kevin Madden. "He's copying a very strong proposal by Governor Romney, but he's still copying nonetheless."
Rick Beltram, chairman of the Republican Party in Spartanburg County in South Carolina, said immigration is the number two issue for the state's GOP voters, behind the war in Iraq. Beltram questioned, however, whether Thompson's plan was too late to generate much excitement.
"I think it's correct, but will he be viewed as Johnny-come-lately because that's not a novel idea?" Beltram asked. "I've heard other candidates talk about it for weeks."
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and US Representative Duncan Hunter of California have also outlined tough plans to stop illegal immigration. US Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado has made the issue the centerpiece of his campaign, calling for the elimination of government benefits to illegal immigrants and a reduction in legal immigrants.
"Tancredo's the one that's brought the entire debate in his direction," said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party. "Everybody tries to get as close to Tancredo on that issue as they can. He's the standard-bearer on that issue."
Thompson unveiled his plan in Collier County, a tomato-growing region in southwest Florida where a two-day sweep last year by federal immigration agents resulted in 163 arrests. Thompson's campaign said illegal immigrants cause 22 percent of the county's crime, and he appeared with the local sheriff, who made national news this year when he joined with federal agents to enforce immigration law.
Dozens of cities nationwide, including New York and San Francisco, have declared themselves sanctuary cities, where local law enforcement officers will not involve themselves in immigration matters. Other have approved less specific expressions of support for illegal immigrants.
Mayor Edward I. Koch, a Democrat, made New York a sanctuary city in 1989. Giuliani continued that policy as mayor, and has argued that the declaration helped protect public health and safety, by encouraging immigrants to report crimes to the police and to seek medical treatment.
Unlike Thompson and Romney, Giuliani is not proposing to take federal money away from sanctuary cities. "I would stop illegal immigration at the border because I think that it is not correct to be scapegoating employers, cities, and states because the problem is so huge," he told reporters in Boston yesterday.
But in ads and during debates, Romney has criticized Giuliani, saying sanctuary cities such as New York are a magnet for illegal immigrants.
Giuliani's campaign has responded by accusing Romney of tolerating self-declared sanctuary cities in Massachusetts, including Cambridge and Somerville, when he was governor. His campaign has said Romney had little choice because sanctuary cities violate federal, not state, laws.
To show he is tough on illegal immigrants, Romney's campaign has cited his decision to allow the State Police to enforce immigration laws, though the deal was finalized about a month before Romney left office and never went into effect because Governor Deval Patrick rescinded it.
Romney's campaign has also highlighted his opposition to issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and his veto of legislation that would have granted lower tuition rates to illegal immigrants at state colleges.
Globe correspondent James W. Pindell contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.